DOE News
    Doe Science news source
    The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
    • 2014-12-18 11:30:00
    • Article ID: 627681

    Stunning Zinc Fireworks When Egg Meets Sperm

    EVANSTON, Ill. — Sparks literally fly when a sperm and an egg hit it off. The fertilized mammalian egg releases from its surface billions of zinc atoms in “zinc sparks,” one wave after another, found a Northwestern University-led interdisciplinary research team that includes experts from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory.

    Using cutting-edge technology they developed, including new high-energy X-ray imaging techniques, the team is the first to capture images of these molecular fireworks and pinpoint the origin of the zinc sparks: tiny zinc-rich packages just below the egg’s surface.

    Zinc flux plays a central role in regulating the biochemical processes that ensure a healthy egg-to-embryo transition, and this new unprecedented quantitative information should be useful in improving in vitro fertilization methods.

    “The amount of zinc released by an egg could be a great marker for identifying a high-quality fertilized egg, something we can’t do now,” said Teresa K. Woodruff, an expert in ovarian biology and one of two corresponding authors of the study. “If we can identify the best eggs, fewer embryos would need to be transferred during fertility treatments. Our findings will help move us toward this goal.”

    Woodruff is the Thomas J. Watkins Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

    The study, to be published Dec. 15 by the journal Nature Chemistry, provides the first quantitative physical measurements of zinc localization in single cells in a mammal, using mouse eggs. The research team developed a suite of four physical methods to determine how much zinc there is in an egg and where it is located at the time of fertilization and in the two hours just after. Sensitive imaging methods allowed the researchers to see and count individual zinc atoms in egg cells and visualize zinc spark waves in three dimensions.

    After inventing a novel vital fluorescent sensor for live-cell zinc tracking, scientists discovered close to 8,000 compartments in the egg, each containing approximately one million zinc atoms. These packages release their zinc cargo simultaneously in a concerted process, akin to neurotransmitter release in the brain or insulin release in the pancreas.

    These findings were further confirmed with chemical methods that trap cellular zinc stores and enable zinc mapping on the nanometer scale in a custom-designed electron microscope developed for this project with funding from the W.M. Keck Foundation. Additional experiments at the Advanced Photon Source synchrotron at Argonne enabled the scientists to precisely map the location of zinc atoms in two and three dimensions.

    “On cue, at the time of fertilization, we see the egg release thousands of packages, each dumping a million zinc atoms, and then it’s quiet,” said Thomas V. O’Halloran, the other corresponding author. “Then there is another burst of zinc release. Each egg has four or five of these periodic sparks. It is beautiful to see, orchestrated much like a symphony. We knew zinc was released by the egg in huge amounts, but we had no idea how the egg did this.”

    O’Halloran is the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and director of Northwestern’s Chemistry of Life Processes Institute.

    The study establishes how eggs compartmentalize and distribute zinc to control the developmental processes that allow the egg to become a healthy embryo. Zinc is part of a master switch that controls the decision to grow and change into a completely new genetic organism.

    The studies reported in Nature Chemistry are the culmination of six years of work and build on prior discoveries in the Woodruff and O’Halloran labs, and work they conducted at the APS. In previous studies in mouse eggs by this research team, the egg’s tremendous zinc requirement for reaching maturity was discovered. In addition, the researchers determined that an egg loses 10 billion of its 60 billion zinc atoms upon fertilization in a series of four or five waves called “zinc sparks.” Release of zinc sparks from the egg is essential for embryo formation in the two hours following fertilization.

    “The egg first has to stockpile zinc and then must release some of the zinc to successfully navigate maturation, fertilization and the start of embryogenesis,” O’Halloran said. “But exactly how much zinc is involved in this remarkable process and where is it in the cell? We needed data to better understand the molecular mechanisms at work as an egg becomes a new organism.”

    One major hurdle O’Halloran and Woodruff faced was the lack of sensitive methods for measuring zinc in single cells. To address this problem, they formed a collaborative team with other researchers in Northwestern’s Chemistry of Life Processes Institute to develop the tools they needed.

    Key members of the team were Vinayak P. Dravid, the Abraham Harris Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Stefan Vogt, a physicist and group leader of microscopy at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne. Dravid and Vogt are authors of the paper.

    “We had to develop a slew of methods to be convinced we were seeing the right thing,” O’Halloran said. “Science is about testing and retesting ideas. All of our complementary results point to the same conclusion: the zinc originates in packages called vesicles near the cell’s surface.”

    The researchers currently are working to see if they can correlate zinc sparks with egg quality, information that would be key to improving fertility treatments.

    Not only are these new imaging techniques important for describing the zinc spark, they can be applied to other cells that likely use zinc in a similar way, but whose workings remain elusive due to the lack of sensitive and specific tools. This study lays the groundwork for understanding how zinc fluxes can regulate events in multiple biological systems beyond the egg, including neurotransmission from zinc-enriched neurons in the brain and insulin-release in the pancreas.

    Proposed upgrades to the APS will dramatically enhance future studies in this area. At the moment, X-ray tools cannot effectively probe trace metal content in biological samples at the resolution and sensitivity required to map small clusters of metals as they interact with transporters on cell surfaces and vesicles.

    “Upgrading the APS will dramatically increase the spatial resolution, sensitivity, and speed at which we can visualize trace elemental content in three dimensions in a statistically significant number of cells,” Vogt pointed out. “This will not only make it possible to visualize in 3-D across the whole egg the zinc at the membrane and the individual vesicles in the cell that emit sparks of zinc to make the egg fertilizable, but allow us to do so with dozens of samples at all relevant time points.”

    The National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the W.M. Keck Foundation supported the research, which made use in part of APS, a DOE Office of Science User Facility.

    The title of the paper is “Quantitative mapping of zinc fluxes in the mammalian egg reveals the origin of fertilization-induced zinc sparks.”

    In addition to O’Halloran, Woodruff, Dravid and Vogt, other authors of the paper are lead author Emily L. Que, Reiner Bleher, Francesca E. Duncan, Betty Y. Kong, Seth A. Garwin and Amanda R. Bayer, of Northwestern; and Sophie C. Gleber and Si Chen, of Argonne.

    Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations. Argonne is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

    - By Megan Fellman

    • Filters

    • × Clear Filters

    Stronger, lighter, greener

    A new award-winning magnet technology invented at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory could help drive the nation's transition from gas-powered vehicles to electric and hybrid power more rapidly, at lower cost, and in a more environmentally friendly way.

    Science Up-Close: Developing a Cookbook for Efficient Fusion Energy

    To develop a future fusion reactor, scientists need to understand how and why plasma in fusion experiments moves into a "high-confinement mode" where particles and heat can't escape. Scientists at the Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory simulated the transition into that mode starting from the most basic physics principles.

    Peering into the Mist: How Water Vapor Changes Metal at the Atomic Level

    New insights into molecular-level processes could help prevent corrosion and improve catalytic conversion.

    Neutron science publications reach new highs at ORNL's flagship facilities

    The High Flux Isotope Reactor and the Spallation Neutron Source at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have reached new levels of increased science productivity. In 2018, a record high of more than 500 scientific instrument publications were produced between HFIR and SNS--based on neutron beamline experiments conducted by more than 1,200 US and international researchers who used the world-leading facilities.

    Fiery sighting: A new physics of eruptions that damage fusion experiments

    Feature describes first direct sighting of a trigger for bursts of heat that can disrupt fusion reactions.

    Microbial Types May Prove Key to Gas Releases from Thawing Permafrost

    Scientists discover key types of microbes that degrade organic matter and release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

    An effect that Einstein helped discover 100 years ago offers new insight into a puzzling magnetic phenomenon

    Experiments at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have seen for the first time what happens when magnetic materials are demagnetized at ultrafast speeds of millionths of a billionth of a second: The atoms on the surface of the material move, much like the iron bar did. The work, done at SLAC's Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser, was published in Nature earlier this month.

    Found: A precise method for determining how waves and particles affect fusion reactions

    Like surfers catching ocean waves, particles within plasma can ride waves oscillating through the plasma during fusion energy experiments. Now a team of physicists led by PPPL has devised a faster method to determine how much this interaction contributes to efficiency loss in tokamaks.

    Discovery adapts natural membrane to make hydrogen fuel from water

    In a recent study from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, scientists have combined two membrane-bound protein complexes to perform a complete conversion of water molecules to hydrogen and oxygen.

    How Plants Regulate Sugar Deposition in Cell Walls

    Identified genes involved in plant cell wall polysaccharide production and restructuring could aid in engineering bioenergy crops.

    • Filters

    • × Clear Filters

    Top 10 Discoveries of 2018

    Every year, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory compiles a list of the biggest advances made by the Lab's staff scientists, engineers, and visiting researchers. From uncovering mysteries of the universe to building better batteries, here, in no particular order, are our picks for the top 10 discoveries of 2018.

    U.S. Department of Energy Announces $33 Million for Small Business Research and Development Grants

    The U.S. Department of Energy announced it will award 189 grants totaling $33 million to 149 small businesses in 32 states.

    DOE to Provide $16 Million for New Research into Atmospheric and Terrestrial Processes

    The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced a plan to provide $16 million for new observational research aimed at improving the accuracy of today's climate and earth system models.

    Machine learning award powers Argonne leadership in engine design

    When attempting to design engines to be more fuel-efficient and emissions-free, automotive manufacturers have to take into account all the complexity inherent in the combustion process.

    ORNL partners with industry to address multiple nuclear technology challenges

    The Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is collaborating with industry on six new projects focused on advancing commercial nuclear energy technologies that offer potential improvements to current nuclear reactors and move new reactor designs closer to deployment.

    Lithium earns honors for three physicists working to bring the energy that powers the sun to Earth

    Feature describes research of three PPPL physicists who have won the laboratory's 2018 outstanding research awards

    DOE approves technical plan and cost estimate to upgrade Argonne facility; Project will create X-rays that illuminate the atomic scale, in 3D

    The U.S. Department of Energy has approved the technical scope, cost estimate and plan of work for an upgrade of the Advanced Photon Source, a major storage-ring X-ray source at Argonne.

    Costas Soukoulis elected to National Academy of Inventors

    Costas Soukoulis, Ames Laboratory senior scientist and Iowa State University Frances M. Craig Endowed Chair and Distinguished Professor, has been named as a 2018 National Academy of Inventors (NAI) Fellow.

    Biophysicist F. William Studier Elected Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors

    F. William Studier, a Senior Biophysicist Emeritus at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory and Adjunct Professor of Biochemistry at Stony Brook University, has been elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). He is among 148 renowned academic inventors being recognized by NAI for 2018.

    Blast to the future

    A grant from DOE's Technology Commercialization Fund will help researchers at Argonne and industry partners seek improvements to U.S. manufacturing by making discovery and design of new materials more efficient.

    • Filters

    • × Clear Filters

    Rapid Lake Draining on Ice Sheets Changes How Water Moves in Unexpected Ways

    Widespread fracturing during lake drainage triggers vertical shafts to form that affect the Greenland Ice Sheet.

    New Historical Emissions Trends Estimated with the Community Emissions Data System

    The data system will allow for more detailed, consistent, and up-to-date global emissions trends that will aid in understanding aerosol effects.

    Peering into the Mist: How Water Vapor Changes Metal at the Atomic Level

    New insights into molecular-level processes could help prevent corrosion and improve catalytic conversion.

    Microbial Types May Prove Key to Gas Releases from Thawing Permafrost

    Scientists discover key types of microbes that degrade organic matter and release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

    New Method Knocks Out Yeast Genes with Single-Point Precision

    Researchers can precisely study how different genes affect key properties in a yeast used industrially to produce fuel and chemicals.

    How Plants Regulate Sugar Deposition in Cell Walls

    Identified genes involved in plant cell wall polysaccharide production and restructuring could aid in engineering bioenergy crops.

    Scientists Identify Gene Cluster in Budding Yeasts with Major Implications for Renewable Energy

    How yeast partition carbon into a metabolite may offer insights into boosting production for biofuels.

    More Designer Peptides, More Possibilities

    A combined experimental and modeling approach contributes to understanding small proteins with potential use in industrial, therapeutic applications.

    Deep Learning for Electron Microscopy

    Artificial intelligence on Summit to discover atomic-scale structures.

    Clarifying Rates of Methylmercury Production

    New model provides more accurate estimates of how fast microbes produce a mercury-based neurotoxin.


    Friday January 18, 2019, 05:05 PM

    Chemistry intern inspired by Argonne's real-world science

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Friday January 18, 2019, 04:05 PM

    Chasing a supernova

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Tuesday January 08, 2019, 02:05 PM

    Argonne intern streamlines the beamline

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Thursday October 11, 2018, 04:00 PM

    Research on Light-Matter Interaction Could Lead to Improved Electronic and Optoelectronic Devices

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

    Wednesday October 03, 2018, 07:05 PM

    Innovating Our Energy Future

    Oregon State University, College of Engineering

    Tuesday October 02, 2018, 03:05 PM

    Physics graduate student takes her thesis research to a Department of Energy national lab

    University of Alabama at Birmingham

    Friday September 21, 2018, 01:05 PM

    "Model" students enjoy Argonne campus life

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Thursday September 06, 2018, 01:05 PM

    Writing Code for a More Skilled and Diverse STEM Workforce

    Brookhaven National Laboratory

    Tuesday September 04, 2018, 11:30 AM

    New graduate student summer school launches at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

    Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

    Friday August 31, 2018, 06:05 PM

    The Gridlock State

    California State University (CSU) Chancellor's Office

    Friday August 31, 2018, 02:05 PM

    Meet Jasmine Hatcher and Trishelle Copeland-Johnson

    Brookhaven National Laboratory

    Friday August 24, 2018, 11:05 AM

    Argonne hosts Modeling, Experimentation and Validation Summer School

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Wednesday August 22, 2018, 01:05 PM

    Students affected by Hurricane Maria bring their research to SLAC

    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

    Wednesday August 22, 2018, 10:05 AM

    Brookhaven Lab Pays Tribute to 2018 Summer Interns

    Brookhaven National Laboratory

    Monday August 20, 2018, 12:05 PM

    Changing How Buildings Are Made

    Washington University in St. Louis

    Thursday August 16, 2018, 12:05 PM

    CSUMB Selected to Host Architecture at Zero Competition in 2019

    California State University, Monterey Bay

    Friday July 20, 2018, 03:00 PM

    Department of Energy Invests $64 Million in Advanced Nuclear Technology

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

    Thursday July 19, 2018, 05:00 PM

    Professor Miao Yu Named the Priti and Mukesh Chatter '82 Career Development Professor

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

    Tuesday July 03, 2018, 11:05 AM

    2018 RHIC & AGS Annual Users' Meeting: 'Illuminating the QCD Landscape'

    Brookhaven National Laboratory

    Friday June 29, 2018, 06:05 PM

    Argonne welcomes The Martian author Andy Weir

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Monday June 18, 2018, 09:55 AM

    Creating STEM Knowledge and Innovations to Solve Global Issues Like Water, Food, and Energy

    Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA)

    Friday June 15, 2018, 10:00 AM

    Professor Emily Liu Receives $1.8 Million DoE Award for Solar Power Systems Research

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

    Thursday June 07, 2018, 03:05 PM

    Celebrating 40 years of empowerment in science

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Monday May 07, 2018, 10:30 AM

    Introducing Graduate Students Across the Globe to Photon Science

    Brookhaven National Laboratory

    Wednesday May 02, 2018, 04:05 PM

    Students from Massachusetts and Washington Win DOE's 28th National Science Bowl(r)

    Department of Energy, Office of Science

    Thursday April 12, 2018, 07:05 PM

    The Race for Young Scientific Minds

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Wednesday March 14, 2018, 02:05 PM

    Q&A: Al Ashley Reflects on His Efforts to Diversify SLAC and Beyond

    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

    Thursday February 15, 2018, 12:05 PM

    Insights on Innovation in Energy, Humanitarian Aid Highlight UVA Darden's Net Impact Week

    University of Virginia Darden School of Business

    Friday February 09, 2018, 11:05 AM

    Ivy League Graduate, Writer and Activist with Dyslexia Visits CSUCI to Reframe the Concept of Learning Disabilities

    California State University, Channel Islands

    Wednesday January 17, 2018, 12:05 PM

    Photographer Adam Nadel Selected as Fermilab's New Artist-in-Residence for 2018

    Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)

    Wednesday January 17, 2018, 12:05 PM

    Fermilab Computing Partners with Argonne, Local Schools for Hour of Code

    Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)

    Wednesday December 20, 2017, 01:05 PM

    Q&A: Sam Webb Teaches X-Ray Science from a Remote Classroom

    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

    Monday December 18, 2017, 01:05 PM

    The Future of Today's Electric Power Systems

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

    Monday December 18, 2017, 12:05 PM

    Supporting the Development of Offshore Wind Power Plants

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

    Tuesday October 03, 2017, 01:05 PM

    Stairway to Science

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Thursday September 28, 2017, 12:05 PM

    After-School Energy Rush

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Thursday September 28, 2017, 10:05 AM

    Bringing Diversity Into Computational Science Through Student Outreach

    Brookhaven National Laboratory

    Thursday September 21, 2017, 03:05 PM

    From Science to Finance: SLAC Summer Interns Forge New Paths in STEM

    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

    Thursday September 07, 2017, 02:05 PM

    Students Discuss 'Cosmic Opportunities' at 45th Annual SLAC Summer Institute

    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

    Thursday August 31, 2017, 05:05 PM

    Binghamton University Opens $70 Million Smart Energy Building

    Binghamton University, State University of New York

    Wednesday August 23, 2017, 05:05 PM

    Widening Horizons for High Schoolers with Code

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Saturday May 20, 2017, 12:05 PM

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Graduates Urged to Embrace Change at 211th Commencement

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

    Monday May 15, 2017, 01:05 PM

    ORNL, University of Tennessee Launch New Doctoral Program in Data Science

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory

    Friday April 07, 2017, 11:05 AM

    Champions in Science: Profile of Jonathan Kirzner

    Department of Energy, Office of Science

    Wednesday April 05, 2017, 12:05 PM

    High-Schooler Solves College-Level Security Puzzle From Argonne, Sparks Interest in Career

    Argonne National Laboratory

    Showing results

    0-4 Of 2215